All the recent excitement on the world's stock exchanges - last week the cost of renovating the Underground was wiped off the value of shares in half a day - puts one in mind of the question of true value and what it really is. Back in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon thought that money was the token of value in the same way as words were the tokens of ideas. Three hundred years later, Auden too plumped for money with the Night Mail crossing the border bringing the cheque and the postal order. But nobody, as far as I can discover, has ever said anything wise about the cash value of old buildings.
Which is a pity because we should have some form of words to celebrate the billions of pounds spent on our architectural heritage, a better investment in the twenty-first century than any 'dot.com' could ever be.
Or is it? Lately two little problems have crept over the horizon that just might foreshadow a crisis of value of biblical proportions. One of them is the fate of English Heritage's 'at risk register', which is about to create a value crisis of its own. The other concerns the effect that enforced 'sustainability' could have on heritage conservation in general.
Consider the 'at risk register', which comprises a motley collection of some 1600 structures, including many Grade I- and Grade II*-listed buildings that are considered to be of immense value but have no beneficial use and are in a state of decay. According to English Heritage, each of these buildings and sites would cost on average a quarter of a million pounds to restore to good order, but at present they are sold at knock- down prices because they are derelict. They are thus both valuable and valueless - like asylum-seekers' food vouchers - which explains why most of their owners, instead of scrimping and saving to get their Bridesheads back into Jane Austen tv adaptation shape, are cannily waiting for them to fall down so that they can replace them with something useful. A stance which displeases English Heritage greatly.
Of course, culture secretary Chris Smith could easily write a cheque for £400 million to solve eh's problem, but he won't. Instead his chaps are cooking up a plan to have the local authorities step in, do the work and then recoup the cost of it from the owners' equity. This is a Grade II* idea worthy of Archbishop Morton, or it would be if it weren't for the question of value, where it could easily founder, because many of these derelicts embody no equity as far as the market is concerned. So are owners to be hit for the cost of compulsory improvements that will create value only in the closed world of heritage? It looks like it.
But this is not the biggest conservation issue in tomorrow's world. The impending enforcement of 'sustainability' criteria for all building not only leaves a gaping hole where the vast mass of the existing built environment is concerned - for there is a vast disparity that separates the scale of the existing built environment from the scale of the modest increments by which it is annually increased - it also raises the question of the true value of conservation. For just as improvements in the energy performance of new buildings can have only an infinitesimal impact on the total energy equation for the built environment, so does the enforced emphasis on art historical accuracy in conservation work - taking pride of place over function and energy efficiency - constitutes a huge and growing obstacle to the diversion of resources to survival, which is surely where the true value of the built environment is to be found.